Colin Stuart is an astronomy presenter and science communicator at the Royal Observatory Planetarium in London. He is also a science writer who focuses on physics, astronomy and mathematics. He is the co-author of the new book ‘The Big Questions in Science’. He spoke with Cosmic Genome with one of his co-authors of that book, Man Keat Looi.
I tended to chew up the big questions in physics books when I was a teenager
On reading science books as a kid
Yeah I tended to chew up the big questions in physics books when I was a teenager studying A level physics and then going on to university, so people like John Gribbin has written countless books, I mean In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, even when I was writing about Schrodinger’s cat in the book here I went back to John’s book and I re red particular chapters just to refresh my memory of what was going on. I remember reading Marcus Chown’s The Universe Next Door when I was a teenager, that’s a really good book, um so yeah again it was the really big questions. I was starting to want to grapple with some of the quantum physics that you don’t really do much of at A level but you do when you go to university, I was trying to grab stuff a bit earlier from these popular science books, so, I think there’s a lot of good stuff out there.
On kids engaging with science
Yeah it has absolutely filtered down and I wonder where that comes from, whether teachers are getting more engaged with cutting edge science and then they’re passing that onto their students or whether the sort of, the fact that science has become so popular at the moment, whether they are watching Horizons and things and I had a guy come and ask me, he was a kid, must’ve been about 10, he was asking me about the black hole at the centre of our Milky Way cause he’d seen a recent Horizon documentary about it. And so he was asking me, what happens when this gas goes inside the black hole and where’s it go – again that was a question what happens at the bottom of a black hole, where does all the stuff go when it goes inside. So there are, kids are smart and they really are kind of, they know these words, they know that Pluto now is a dwarf planet, they correct their friends and their teachers all the time so yeah they’re certainly engaged.
The thing is with so many big results recently you know, particularly in the physics and astronomy side of things you’ve got the LHC and all the stuff that’s … CERN did a fantastic job with their PR around the launch, the start of the LHC got some really good coverage. um big telescopes, you’ve got the Kepler – although it’s no pretty much defunct – has been making revelations about, finding potentially Earth like planets elsewhere in the Universe and kids – these have been on the six o’clock news, they’re making headlines, so kids I think are seeing these things and they wanna know the answers.
When we were talking over them is what’s at the bottom of the ocean because you, you kind of figure we should know. It’s not that far away really but I am right in saying that fewer people have been to the deepest part of the ocean than have been on the moon…and we know more, we’ve mapped more of the surface of Mars than we have the bottom of the ocean and it’s actually not that far away, it’s just very difficult to get to. So that as a particularly interesting one.
I think the one that I would’ve liked to put in if I could was will humans ever leave the solar system, because there’s talk now of going to Mars and I’m convinced that that will happen one day, it’s not too difficult maybe in 50 – 100 years time. But going between stars is a much more fundamental question, I mean to put it in perspective, currently it would take you about three days to get to the moon which is not so bad – 9 months to go to Mars, not that bad. To get to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, travelling at the fastest speeds we’ve created with our rockets today, would take about 72,500 years. And so really, if we’re gonna spread out into space, there’s a fundamental barrier there because the rockets we use right now are not fit for purpose to go over those huge distances. So actually if we are gonna do that, how are we gonna do it? Cause, with the alien life chapter for example, you can find strong evidence that there’s alien life on a planet, for example if you see oxygen in the air of that planet, which we have the technology to do now, then there’s a strong chance it has life because oxygen shouldn’t stay there in an atmosphere it should be destroyed by sunlight, so if it’s being replenished, if it’s there, it must be replenished by something and on earth that’s one of the biggest things to create it is microbes in the oceans. But actually, there’s a subtle difference between saying this is a habitable planet with water, oxygen, right size, right distance away from its sun, there’s a difference between saying that and there is fundamentally for a fact life on there.
So if we’re gonna answer those questions, maybe we have to – and this is a long way down the line – leave our solar system, which we’ll have to do anyway, because as we mentioned in the black hole chapter, when stars die, and our sun is going to die, it’s going to swell up in 5 billion years and not be here anymore, so, if we are gonna thrive and continue as a species, if we even survive that long, then we would need to travel between the stars. So I think, will we ever achieve interstellar travel would’ve been a nice one (mmm from Mankeet 13:45 clip 2). But that’s really, really speculative, we’re just starting to do stuff now, research into things like solar sails and ion drives and stuff so maybe there wasn’t quite enough current stuff going on – although having said that, we did time travel, so.
Further discussions with Colin and Mun Keat about ‘The Big Questions in Science’ can be found in the Science Book Club area of the App.